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ART : Wry Play ‘Sight Unseen’ Holds a Mirror to Snobbish Art World : If anyone ever needed to be reminded of how the opinions of a cloistered few dictate the market, this SCR production does it.

By coincidence, the day I saw “Sight Unseen"--a play by Donald Margulies about a fictional artist superstar of the ‘80s, currently in its world premiere production on South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage in Costa Mesa--I spent the morning visiting a local artist.

He wryly recounted how, shortly before a carefully budgeted trip to New York, he sent a few slides of his work to a Manhattan gallery recommended by a top curator in Los Angeles. Naively, the artist didn’t mention the curator’s name, or even take him up on his offer to call the gallery directly. The upshot? The dealer’s assistant laughed in his face and told him the slides would be returned whenever they got around to it.

It was a reminder (as if I needed one) of the cloistered and snobbish side of the international art world, which relies heavily on the opinions of a small group of taste-makers. A few years ago, at the height of the art boom, the right sort of attention from these curators and critics could turn an obscure artist into a hot commodity whose publicity and sales were carefully groomed and nurtured by experts.

We first see Jonathan Waxman--the brash, expensively dressed American protagonist of “Sight Unseen"--on the occasion of a retrospective of his work at a London gallery. He has stopped off in a country village to visit Patricia, an old flame who is now a dowdy archeologist married to Nick, a waspish British colleague she doesn’t love.

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Patricia and Nick already know a lot about Jonathan’s life and times, thanks to a New York Times Magazine profile her mother has mailed them. Nick is derisive of Jonathan’s fame as a “bad boy” who specializes in big figurative paintings of highly provocative subjects, but the artist assures the couple that “it’s all timing and luck. I could become a joke in a minute. . . . The New York critics, they giveth and they taketh away.”

Waxman’s cause celebre is “Walpurgisnacht,” a painting in which an interracial couple make love in a Jewish cemetery defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. (Wisely, the audience never sees this painting, or the early Waxman that hangs in the archeologists’ home. We are free to imagine his level of painterly brilliance, as well as the precise nature of the controversial cemetery scene.)

Clearly, Waxman’s success and fame is supposed to make us think of such American painters as Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fischl. And yet none of these artists (even Fischl, whose canvases of naked or semi-naked figures in suburban settings reveal the sexual tensions underlying family life) offers the same sort of agonizingly visceral social agenda that seems to infuse Waxman’s work.

That outlook is the purview of on-the-edge American figurative painters largely ignored by bourgeois collectors (artists such as Sue Coe, whose recent dark works condemn the meat industry, or Robert Colescott, who paints interracial scenes that deliberately border on “politically incorrect” stereotype), or such German painters as Jiri Dokoupil. Interestingly, with regard to Waxman’s preoccupation with the subject of the Holocaust--the subject of sharp grilling by a German art critic in one scene of the play--not a single like-minded contemporary American painter comes to mind.

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Grete, the humorless and persistent critic in the play, certainly is a recognizable type. In a long-winded statement masquerading as a question, she notes how peculiarly American it is that the paintings reflect “spiritual emptiness” and “alienation,” yet are very popular. Smugly, she inquires whether Waxman feels “responsible to always tell the truth.”

He answers reasonably that the best he can hope is that one of his paintings finds its way into the viewer’s unconscious and takes root there. But he’s displeased at the mindless way people look at art. He recalls a big show of Vincent van Gogh’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attended by hordes of “average, middle-class people.” He figures it was better than people lining up to see paintings of kids with big eyes. Still, “the art was just a backdrop for the real show happening in the gift shop.”

This rap is numbingly familiar. In the mid-'80s, critic Robert Hughes enthralled large audiences around the country with his honed-tongued jeremiad about the mindless worship of art by the great unwashed. Is it possible that this message still is news to theatergoers, even those with no special interest in the visual arts?

In any case, Waxman is seen as fully capable of rhapsodizing in a silly way about the years when he painted houses for a living (“I would lose myself all day while I painted moldings”) or dropping his social veneer to concentrate with utter self-absorption on one of his paintings. Discovering his student portrait of Patricia hanging in her home, he is mesmerized--not by the sight of the young body of his former lover, but by his own artistry. “See what I was doing with the picture plane?,” he asks no one in particular. “I didn’t think I was doing anything like that until much later.”

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But when he talks about the way “certain people” got him gallery shows, it’s as if--like the Zen koan about whether the tree actually makes a sound if it falls in a forest where no one hears--he doesn’t believe his art has any real existence apart from the attention other (influential) people pay it.

For all his wordly success--gallery clients have signed up and paid for works he hasn’t even painted yet--he seems at the mercy of powerful forces and unseen eyes. As he says, “For each person who sees the work, you are discovered all over again.”

Nick, however, is one of those people who believes there has been no good art since the Renaissance. The modern age, he says, “reinvented what had already been perfected centuries ago.” He wants to know whose fault it is if he doesn’t understand the painting. Waxman explains the deal about contemporary art--that the artist’s job is “not to spell anything out.” The viewer has to do the work.

Looking at a reproduction of “Walpurgisnacht” in the exhibit catalogue, Patricia observes that the white woman’s hands in the painting are curled into fists, signifying that she is being raped. Nick, who dismisses the painting as pornography, scoffs that the hands simply are poorly painted. Waxman says his intention in painting the work is “irrelevant.” The couple wonder why the painting is so ambiguous and confusing.

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“Got you thinking about it, didn’t I,” Waxman replies smugly. (There’s a helluva lot of smugness in the art world, and playwright Margulies--who studied art in college with the idea of making it a career--finds ample opportunity to expose it in “Sight Unseen.”) But is a work of art good just because it makes somebody “think”? Does it matter what they think about? Is ambiguity in itself a virtue?

It is when the issues are as significant as they are in this play. The great strength of “Sight Unseen” is that it explores some of the big questions--about the value of art and the distinctive trajectory of a life--without offering any pat answers. Viewers get a lot to chew on, and ultimately they have to do the work.


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